Israel’s stance on prisoners threatens peace talks
US in intensive diplomacy to prevent collapse of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations
An Israeli border policeman detains a Palestinian protestor during clashes in east Jerusalem on Saturday ahead of Land Day yesterday. Land Day, observed by Israelis, commemorates the killing by security forces of six Arabs in 1976 during protests. Photograph: Reuters\Amir Cohen
Israel failed to release a fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners over the weekend, putting the future of the peace talks in doubt.
US officials are engaged in intensive diplomacy to prevent the total collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which began last July under Washington’s mediation.
As part of the deal to relaunch the talks, Israel agreed to release 104 veteran Palestinian prisoners in four batches, in return for the Palestinians putting on hold efforts to seek United Nations recognition for statehood.
Palestinians reacted angrily to Israel’s decision not to carry out the weekend release of the final batch of 26 prisoners. Israel argued that it would only do so once the Palestinians commit to continue the negotiations, after the initial nine-month deadline expires next month.
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said contacts are continuing in an effort to find an acceptable formula for extending the peace talks, but he warned there would be no deal to free prisoners “without a clear benefit for Israel in return”.
US secretary of state John Kerry is reportedly proposing that Israel carry out the fourth prisoner release, commit to freeing another 400 detainees and carry out a limited West Bank troop redeployment to encourage Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to stay at the negotiating table.
However, some Israeli ministers have spoken out strongly against any further release of Palestinian prisoners. Economy minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the right-wing Jewish Home party, said he would not allow the release of 400 prisoners.
“Let me be clear: this will not happen,” he said.
‘Crosshairs of a gun’
“The place for murderers of Jews is in the crosshairs of a gun and, if not there, then in prison.”
According to the Washington Post , Mr Kerry warned Israel that if the negotiations fail, the US would be unable to prevent unilateral Palestinian efforts to seek statehood recognition at the UN.
The Palestinians oppose Israel having the final say on which prisoners will be released, fearing detainees whose prison terms are about to expire, together with common criminals, will be set free.
The prisoner issue remains an emotive one on the Palestinian streets, with almost 5,000 security detainees held in Israeli prisons. Mr Abbas hopes that by ensuring further concessions from Israel to release detainees, he can boost his standing in the West Bank and Gaza.